Rules of the Game: Love, courtship, marriage, sex and married life from the 19th century until 1939

Introduction and disclaimer:

In today’s society (speaking from a Western standpoint) endlessly analysing relationships, discussions of sex and being open about one’s feelings are the norm; we live in an era saturated with sex. People are bombarded with books, articles, films and TV programmes about sex and relationships and to have the slightest hint of celebrity is enough to provoke outright speculation about one’s love life or lack of it. However this was not always the case; a cursory survey among the older generation born before World War 2 would unveil a reticence and reluctance about discussing personal matters. To this generation the obsession and endless analysis of the state of one’s emotions and relationships was anathema and the same with sex; if it was ever talked about or discussed then it was cloaked under various euphemisms.

Along with an exploration of what lay behind this reticence will be a discussion of the rituals of courtship which have changed beyond recognition; the experiences of the previous generation are now dismissed as archaic and restrictive. The next two entries will talk about love, courtship, marriage, sex and married life from the late 19th century until the outbreak of the Second World War. As this is a fairly broad topic and quite complicated, we will try our best to explore attitudes then and emphasise how different norms and attitudes applied then and now.

All details are based on research, reading contemporary accounts and academic and popular studies. Contemporary accounts concerning sex should be read with caution as it is highly likely that they were embellished, sanitised or simply outright fabrications.

Some parts of both entries might have mature content and maybe considered NSFW.

Part 1 – Courtship and Marriage

Courtship and the rules of the game:

Unlike today where men and women mix freely and there are endless opportunities to meet in order for love to blossom and end in marriage, in the late 19th and early 20th century such opportunities were limited owing to more restrictive norms and ideas of propriety that were pervasive in 19th century society; and many of these ideas persisted even into the late 20th century.

Why was this the case? By the middle of the 19th century, there was an emphasis on respectability which was not only confined to the expanding middle class but also spread to the upper and working classes. In Britain, leading the charge was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who were both determined to rid the court of the excesses of the Georgian era, and crucially in a period of political instability with the threat of revolution pervasive, present the royal family as the beacon of respectability and the middle class values of thrift, sobriety, industry, self-reliance and austerity.

Thus, “respectability” became a watchword beginning in the middle of the 19th century. Even if privately people fell short of the standards set by society, outwardly at least people of all classes strove to meet this standard of respectability and this applied even more when it came to courtship and marriage.

The lack of opportunities for both genders to mix freely was common across all classes. For the upper classes and as mentioned in an earlier blog the balls, parties, charity functions and events during London Season were opportunities for men and women to meet. Outside the season were the rounds of house parties, hunts, shoots, teas, calling on neighbours and family members, bazaars and fetes. With regards to the middle and working classes there were the public spaces such as parks, churches, the sea side, shops, markets, theatres, concerts and music halls (later the cinema) as well as events such as family gatherings, fetes, bazaars, dances and street parties where both genders could mix and socialise. By the late 19th century, the rise of sports such as tennis, golf and roller skating became another popular way for men and women to get to know each other. Roller skating and especially cycling did play some part in emancipating women and facilitated ways for young men and women to meet.

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All the same, interaction between the sexes was rigidly controlled. Upper and middle class girls had to be chaperoned all the time and while working class girls ostensibly had more freedom than their upper class counterparts, what girls of all classes had in common was parental interference being a given and parents even sometimes grandparents had the right to control every aspect of a girl’s life until she married. Vera Brittain noted this in the early days of her courtship with the man she wanted to marry:

Sophisticated modern day girls…have no conception of the difficulties under which courtships were conducted by provincial young ladies in 1915. There was no privacy for a boy and girl whose mutual feelings had reached their most delicate and bewildering stage; the whole series of complicated relationships leading from acquaintance to engagement had to be conducted in public or not at all…the parental habit, then almost universally accepted as “correct” where daughters were concerned, of inquisition into each day’s proceedings made private encounters, even with a young man in the same town, almost impossible without a series of subterfuges and intrigues which robbed love of all its’ dignity.

It was also the same with the working classes; Mollie Moran wrote of the admonitions she received from her mother about how to conduct herself around boys. Permission had to be asked before going out and once both parents said “out of the question” then that was it. Any thoughts of sneaking out was always met with a stern “you’ll feel the cut of my hand across your backside if you so much as try and sneak out” or a variation thereof. When she went into service as a 14 year old kitchen maid, in the absence of her mother the head cook acted as a sort of loco parentis, a job she took seriously.

This rigidity, which was strongly influenced by Christian morality (more in part 2) was also due to society’s expectations on how the young should behave and again was consistent across all classes. Mollie Moran’s recollection could have also been the same as that of an upper or middle class girl:

“Do I need to remind you about Granny Esther?”  added Mother ominously.

I shook my head and for once had nothing to say. It was absolutely unthinkable to get pregnant out of wedlock back in them days. All girls were brought up with the fear of God drilled into them at the prospect of having an illegitimate child. You would never dream of bringing such shame on your house. Besides which, everyone knew everyone’s business in the country so if you put a foot wrong it would be round the Friday market before you could say “family way”. (p. 40)

Girls (and young men) were ignorant of the birds and the bees but the fear of being pregnant out of wedlock was drilled into them from an early age. It wasn’t just the bringing of shame to their family but there was also the fear of the workhouse, jeopardising one’s marriage prospects and that of her siblings’ and moral censure. The modern day idea of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” was unthinkable, in social circles and in country society; it was hard to keep secrets, one way or the other they did have a way of seeping out and resulting in scandal.

By the 19th century, young people had more say over their choice of the person they wanted to marry; however parents still exercised considerable influence over the choice of spouse. Pat Jalland in her study of women, marriage and politics before the first World War, likened it to Walter Bagehot’s view of the role of the monarch – the right to be consulted, to advise and to warn. For upper class and upper middle class girls, control over the choice of spouse was exercised through elaborate courtship rituals during both the London Season and the sporting calendar. This was to ensure that a young person would meet others of the same social background. Courtship was a very public affair given a girl could not go anywhere without a chaperone and several public spaces were designated as no-go areas; Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster) recalled that her mother advised her against going to Burlington Arcade alone and to avoid looking into windows of gentlemen’s clubs. (Curious as to why this was forbidden she discreetly peeked into the window of one such club and found that it was occupied by mostly elderly gentlemen slumped asleep on chairs with a newspaper or book). In order to ascertain if a couple had something in common and liked each other acquaintanceship, friendship or anything more romantic had to be conducted in public and with the likelihood of someone listening in. When Vera Brittain’s fiancé returned to the front, even then they could not be alone – it was considered correct and inevitable that my aunt should cling to me like a limpet during the precious hours that I spent with Roland. Letters could provide a degree of privacy where both parties could express thoughts and feelings away from prying eyes and ears, but for someone living at home, four posts a day made lying in wait for the postman impossible – and as Brittain observed, letters were observed and commented on by parents and relatives as a matter of course.

In some cases, parents did also take an active role in attempting to secure desirable matches for their children – Louisa Duchess of Abercorn for instance decreed that all her daughters should marry peers but not lower than an earl and succeeded in her aim; while others actively scanned the peerage and enlisted the help of siblings and other relatives to help find suitable spouses for their children. They also actively intervened to ensure that their children were prime marriage material (even then double standards were applied – with a daughter her moral conduct was very strictly monitored while with sons, parents simply admonished them if they looked like going astray and intervened only as a last resort), prevent them from making unsuitable marriages or hurrying along a courtship between an offspring to someone they approved.

Woe betide a son or daughter who made an unsuitable marriage but more often than not, parents would end up reluctantly accepting their child’s choice of spouse especially when the son or daughter was already aged 21 or over where parental permission for contracting a marriage was no longer required.

For the middle and working class, courtship was less elaborate but still conducted in the public domain; the middle classes placed emphasis on having the same religious affiliation, shared intellectual interests and philanthropic concerns as well as compatibility. Just as with upper class parents, middle class parents also actively intervened to ensure that their offspring made marriages appropriate to their station. Those who like the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning made unsuitable marriages by eloping like her found themselves shunned by their families (as well as being disinherited); her father never spoke to her again.

It was the working class who had the most freedom compared to the upper and middle class when it came to courtship. There was less parental control owing to the fact that many young people already in employment from the age of 14 were already living away from their parents and had more opportunities to meet other people. Most of the courtship took place while at work, strolls in the park or going to church and during events such as fetes and bazaars. However, courtship also depended on the type of work; while those who worked in factories and shops had more time to meet other people, those who were in service did not have the same advantage. Long hours and less time off meant that those who worked as maids, footmen, and kitchen staff did not have the same opportunities as a ship builder or shop assistant to pursue relationships that could blossom into love and eventually marriage.

It was even harder for those who were at the top rung of the service hierarchy. Butlers, housekeepers, valets and lady’s maids had even less free time than the junior servants, as Rosina Harrison (lady’s maid to Lady Astor) puts it:

Marriage was the goal of nearly every woman servant. It wasn’t easy for them. After the war, men were scarce, the demand far outweighed the supply and a maid’s irregular time off was an added disadvantage. Then there was the having to be back by ten o’clock which made every date like Cinderella’s ball, only that you didn’t lose your slipper, you could lose your job. There was no status in being in service, you were a nobody; marriage was the way out of it. (p. 24)

However this freedom only went so far. Parents were consulted on the choice of spouse and fathers were asked and either gave permission or refuse a man to marry their daughter. Even those who for reasons of work lived away from home, informed their parents of a suitor through letter and if there was a proposal, the young woman would take her suitor home where permission would be sought and when consent was given resulted in an engagement and the reading of the banns in the run up to the wedding.

The main criteria for selecting a spouse were more or less uniform across all the classes. Apart from the usual requisites such as health and religion, the most important were family, respectability and the ability to provide. Family and respectability went hand in hand, for the upper and middle classes, where marriage was a matter of consolidating and furthering status and wealth. One of the factors taken into account when agreeing to an intended marriage was the conduct of the parents, siblings and the rest of the extended family of the intended spouse – having a black sheep who had disgraced the family one way or the other could be enough grounds for consent to be refused.

Money or at least the ability to provide was another important factor. Since women generally were not expected to work, it was important that the man had sufficient income, a good job or excellent career prospects in order to maintain a wife and family in a comfortable lifestyle. Even for the working classes where women sometimes did work even after marriage, a man who earned more than his wife and had good career and promotion prospects was seen as desirable. The ability to provide was also a vital motivating factor for the upper classes marrying into upper middle class or middle class families; while many aristocrats would have preferred their children to marry peers or peers’ offspring, the economic realities from the beginning of the late 19th century meant that it was increasingly these middle class families with their wealth derived from commerce and manufacturing who could provide the lifestyle that befitted the son or daughter of a peer.

Love and Marriage:

Many Victorians liked to think that they were marrying for love but to paraphrase what the Prince of Wales said during the press conference announcing his engagement to Lady Diana Spencer, the reality was that it was whatever “for love” really meant. While it’s true that many couples across all classes found love that led to marriage and a happy one at that, for others marriage was primarily seen as a political, social and economic necessity. In 19th century Britain, for those with land, money, titles or money to think about, marriage was almost always a business proposition between families rather than a romantic love match. Love was seen as a bonus if the couple happened to like each other from the beginning or grow to love each other after the wedding.

People had varying expectations about love and many parents and even grandparents saw it as their duty to impart advice, sometimes based on their own personal experience. Queen Victoria, who was grand enough to ignore the rules that governed royal marriages on the Continent wrote to her granddaughter Princess Victoria of Hesse about the importance of marrying for the right reasons:

There is another most important thing wh you are quite old enough for me to speak and write to you about. Dear Papa will, I know, be teased & pressed to make you marry, & I have told him you were far too young to think of it, & that your 1st duty was to stay with him, & to be as it were the Mistress of the House, as so many eldest daughters are to their Fathers, when God has taken their beloved Mother away – I know full well that you have no ideas of this sort & that you (unlike I am sorry to say, so many Princesses abroad) – don’t wish to be married for marrying’s sake & to have a position. I know darling Child that you would never do this, & dear Mama had a horror of it; but it is a very German view of things & I wd. wish you to be prepared & on your guard when such things are brought before Papa, & possibly to your Grandmama.

Other parents pointed out the importance of falling in love with head as well as with heart, cautioning that passion was not enough to sustain a marriage. Lady Selborne advised her son that using one’s judgement before giving full rein to emotion was important in the choice of a wife adding that people of their class very seldom succumbed to the clichéd notion of “love at first sight”. She added, “[d]oes this seem like coldblooded advice? It is not really, because the affection that is inspired by the judgement is a much higher and more lasting affection than that which merely depends on the passions.”

Once a young couple had decided to marry, permission must be sought from both sets of parents before the formal rituals leading to the ceremonies began. For the working class such niceties were not observed, many simply announced that they were getting married and the ceremony followed not long after. It is interesting to note here that while the father’s permission was sought and therefore reinforced the idea of the father being the head of the household, the standards of who was acceptable as marriage material, the rituals of courtship and the wedding plans was in F.M.L Thompson’s words emphatically a “woman’s business, with authority and influence being exercised by wives and mothers, and grandmothers.”

With so much more at stake, for the upper and middle classes, the ritual leading to the ceremony itself could lead to issues that might derail or delay a wedding. There was the marriage settlement (which could be the most contentious issue), the planning of the ceremony and reception, the obtaining of the licence, purchasing the bridal trousseau and presents for the bridal attendants – all of which could prove to be a financial burden. The bridal trousseau itself could be a problem; this usually involved shopping trips to London and Paris for dresses, gowns, hats, accessories, gloves, shoes and underwear. Canny girls and their mothers would cut down on costs such as asking for a discount from a leading couturier (usually the House of Worth) or buying one or two expensive gowns with the rest bought off the peg or done by a local dress maker. Wedding presents for the couple began arriving before the wedding and were displayed for the benefit of the family and the guests.

The engagement was then announced and as it was common in those days, there was a short period between the engagement and wedding as the idea of a long engagement was frowned upon. Marriage manuals claimed that “sincere affections could be killed by the restraints and irritations of long engagements” while others believed that long engagements were superfluous when a couple had known each other for years. Another factor in the undesirability was that long engagements can sometimes end in disaster; the received wisdom was it was preferable to have a long courtship followed by a short engagement.  Some young couples’ engagement lasted only six weeks with frenzied preparations for the ceremony, reception and honeymoon.  Even so several couples had to contend with long engagements owing to several factors such as work, travel and lack of money (many couples of whatever class used the long engagement to save up in order to have an acceptable nest egg necessary to set up home).

Marriages often took place during the end of the Season before the various families returned to their estates for the various shooting parties, with March and May being the most unpopular months for weddings owing to the Church frowning on marriage ceremonies taking place during Lent and the latter marking the beginning of the Season.

While Queen Victoria popularised the wearing of white as a bride, the custom did not take root immediately. For many families, the white gown was an extravagance they could not afford and many young women chose to get married in their Sunday best. Those who could afford to purchase a white wedding gown made sure that it was designed so it could be worn again either as a Sunday best or for formal dinners, balls and other events. Orange blossoms which symbolised chastity became popular as wedding headdresses but again owing to the expense and unavailability outside its season, artificial versions became popular and one that could be handed down from generation to generation.



Also contrary to popular belief, majority of the weddings during the late 19th and early 20th century were not lavish affairs. Even the upper classes disdained the idea of huge and profligate weddings and as a result they tended to be simple affairs held in the village church or the house chapel with a small reception afterwards. For landed families however, the celebrations would continue for a few days as receptions for the servants, tenants and villagers would be held and the bride and groom would be obliged to attend to receive the felicitations of the guests.

Honeymoons were also not the same as they are now. For many couples, it involved a simple trip to the seaside while others did go on trips abroad or visit relatives who were unable to attend the wedding. The latter was a common practice among the upper classes and a blessed relief especially if the marriage was an arranged one and the couple had little in common and barely knew each other; it was unsettling, but a time of great excitement. It was an opportunity to get to know each other and failing that, at least to get to know the rest of the family and be among people who could take the strain off being in each other’s company for hours and days on end.

Once the honeymoon was over, it was time to begin married life and thoughts would naturally turn towards starting a family. As wives, they now faced a break with their old home and family to now being mistress and chatelaine of their own household, a daunting task especially if the new wife was young. This responsibility was not just also confined to running a household but also to see to the wellbeing of her family as Queen Victoria advised her own daughter Princess Victoria who married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858:

It is a very solemn act, the most important and solemn in everyone’s life, but much more so in a woman’s than in a man’s. I have looked on the blessed day which united me to your beloved and perfect Papa – as the cause not only of my own happiness (a happiness few if any enjoy) but as the one which brought happiness and blessings on this country! You have also the blessing of a dear, kind, excellent husband who loves you tenderly devotedly. Let it be your study and your object to make his life and his home a peaceful and happy one and to be of use to him and be a comfort to him in every possible way. Holy and intimate is this union of man and wife as no other can be, and you can never give your parents more happiness and comfort than when they know and see that you are a truly devoted, loving and useful wife to your dear husband.

It is important to note that for young women from high to low, marriage represented the first step of freedom away from being chaperoned all the time and the lack of privacy accorded to them under the parental home. With the dearth of any other options and the opportunities to pursue careers denied to them, in the end it was all about getting married. Marriage was something to aspire to; it gave men and women the chance to move away from the parental home and set up their own household. The idea of marriage as freedom for instance was one reason why Diana Mitford was engaged at the end of her first season to Bryan Guinness, the oldest son of the politician Walter Guinness. Apart from being rich and possessing an intelligence that appealed to Diana, being Mrs Guinness would crucially represent “liberation” from the parental home and its rules.

Further Reading:

Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)

F.M.L. Thompson The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900 (London, 1988)

Pamela Horn. Ladies of the Manor (London, 2012)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2014)

Pamela Horn. Flappers (London, 2013) originally published as Women in the 1920s in 1995

Pat Jalland. Women, Marriage and Politics 1860-1914 (Oxford, 1988)

Joan Perkin. Victorian Women (London, 1993)

Loelia (Grosvenor) Duchess of Westminster. Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia Duchess of Westminster (London, 1961)

Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth (London, 1933)

Rosina Harrison. The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service (London, 2011) originally published as Rose: My Life in Service in 1975

Mollie Moran. Aprons and Silver Spoons (London, 2013)

Francoise Barret-Ducrocq (translated by John Howe). Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality, Class and Gender in Nineteenth-Century London (London, 1991)

Richard Hough (ed.) Advice to a Grand-daughter: Letters from Queen Victoria to Princess Victoria of Hesse (London, 1975)

Andrew Roberts (ed.) Letters to Vicky: The Correspondence between Queen Victoria and her daughter Victoria, Empress of Germany, 1858-1901 (London, 2011)


1. photo of women cycling from

2. portrait of Queen Victoria in her wedding dress by Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1847 as a seventh wedding anniversary present to Prince Albert). Held in the Royal Collection, UK

3. wedding photo from